Palm Sunday, Year C, 2016

The Passion narrative seems particularly resonant this year, with its scenes of crowds shouting for a sacrifice to ease their anxiety, hoping for blood to appease their anger. We see now that these kinds of crowds are not a historical relic, but part of the human condition. I know many of us are deeply anxious about the current political situation in our country, for good reason, but I do think Jesus has good, if somber news for us today.

Going back to the Palm Sunday reading, you may have noticed a few things. There are no palms for one thing. Jesus’ disciples lay their coats for Jesus, not palm branches. And no one shouts “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Instead they shout,

“Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Luke is deeply interested in peace, and the particular peace that Jesus brings to a violent and oppressive world. The disciples’ words echo the words of the angels who appear to the shepherds upon Jesus’ birth.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

But, there is one key difference. The disciples do not shout “peace on earth”, they shout “peace in heaven”. Perhaps they are still hoping Jesus will exercise military power, organize the Jewish population to overthrow the Roman military rule. We think of the group of disciples here as being a joyful contrast to the bloodthirsty crowd that calls for Jesus’ death. But even these disciples, who have been following Jesus, may want blood. They are thrilled that Jesus is finally traveling to Jerusalem, that he is finally going to set straight the powers of the day.

But of course, the only blood Jesus intends to shed is his own.

After his betrayal, Jesus meets the violence of the crowds in Jerusalem not with resistance, but with a clear sense of who he is, and a deep trust in God’s providence for him. Jesus does not achieve peace by trying to make everyone happy. Jesus doesn’t hold press conferences and try to appease the Romans, the corrupt powers in Jerusalem and his ordinary followers. No, Jesus remains completely clear about his values—following God means loving God and your neighbor. He knows his Father will be with him, even as he trembles in fear in the Garden.

We don’t get to the resurrection in today’s readings yet, so I’ll leave us here, standing before our crucified Jesus. Standing before our God who was willing to face us at our violent worst, who was willing to love us through our own violence, even when violence is not what he wanted from us.

The good news is that Jesus loves us through our worst, and that he shows us a way of peace in a violent time. Peace does not mean avoiding conflict, but being true to our Christian values even if it becomes costly to us. The final promise we make in baptism is to: Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. This means respecting the dignity of people of every religion, every race, every nation and every political party.

The Bishops of the Episcopal Church recently met and released the following statement:

We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.”

On Good Friday the ruling political forces of the day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.

In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.

In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.

We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.

Our bishops know we are sinners and we are saints. We have the capacity for violence and the capacity for reconciliation. Developing a spirit of reconciliation is hard, hard work. Picking a side and the demonizing every person who disagrees with us is much easier, but we are the light of the world, we are the body of Christ. And like Christ, we are called to be out in the world actually encountering and relating to people who are different from us. Jesus was in conversation with Pharisees and tax collectors, sinners and Romans. Jesus spoke with outsiders and insiders. The early church was a hodgepodge of Jews and Gentiles, poor and rich, those in power and those out of power.

We can be clear about our values while still treating people who think differently than we do with dignity. We can disagree about policy related to immigration or ISIS while agreeing to be friends. But our promise to treat each person with dignity, and Christ’s overwhelming love for all humankind makes it impossible for us to embrace racism, hatred of the refugee, and hatred of Muslims.

Following God is costly. Jesus was willing to lose everything—power, privilege, even his life. Are we willing to follow?

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Good Friday, Year A, 2011

Beware of crowds.

Crowds are dangerous and fickle.  Crowds don’t use logic and reasoned explanations.  Crowds are easily manipulated.

Even crowds with virtuous intent can suddenly turn, the collective energy turning to violence.  We saw that in Egypt, where parts of the crowd of peaceful protesters turned into a group that attacked Lara Logan, a western journalist.

We’ve seen how easily crowds can be manipulated.  Three years ago our national crowds were yelling for the heads of bankers.  Suddenly this year, with a few nudges here and there, the same crowds were yelling for the heads of teachers and public employees.  All we need is someone to point to an enemy and our collective imagination will paint the rest of the picture.  We love a scape goat.

There is a reason police are called out any time a large crowd gathers—something about being in a crowd makes us anonymous, makes us feel like we lose our identity, that we have become a part of something larger.  That something larger can be a thing of beauty—as we all gather to hear a piece of music together or witness a new beginning like an inauguration.  But that something larger can also be our collective discontent, which can fester and overflow leading us to say and do things we would never do on our own.  Suddenly we’re helping the Nazis round up Jews or murdering thousands of Tutsis in Rwanda or Muslims in Bosnia.  Suddenly, we have become a vehicle for death.

In the end, Jesus’ death can be attributed to a fickle crowd.  The crowd greets him at the entry to Jerusalem, cheering their hosannas, but by the time Jesus is in Pilate’s grasp, the cheers have turned to muttering.  In the Gospel of Matthew’s version of the passion, which we heard last Sunday, the chief priests and elders start whispering into the collective ear of the crowd, encouraging it to free Barabbas.  The crowd has stopped thinking independently.  The crowd asks Pilate no questions.  The crowd just simmers and churns and shouts “Barabbas!” not thinking through the consequences of its action.

Tragically, even Jesus’ disciples are not immune.  One by one eleven of the Apostles slink away.  Peter outright denies Jesus, terrified of being outed.  Terrified of someone identifying him as other, as separate from the crowd.

Not everyone slinks away, though.  A few of Jesus followers somehow manage to stick by Jesus, despite the fear, despite the enormous cultural and political pressure to betray him.  Conveniently, in the Gospel of John’s version of events, John appears to stick around, as well as Jesus’ mother, and Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdelene.  For these women, their love for Jesus overrides all things.  They do not fear the authorites, they do not fear the crowd, they are able to remember love in the midst of all the fear.

Strangely, the other two figures who are able to distinguish themselves from the crowd are actually part of the establishment.  Neither Joseph of Arimathea nor Nicodemus were public followers of Jesus.  Joseph, a wealthy man, considered himself a disciple, but was a secret one because he was afraid of the authorities, afraid of the crowd.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee who was intrigued by Jesus, but only would visit Jesus under the cover of night.

For these two figures, the death of Jesus becomes a crystallizing moment.  Suddenly they are able to distinguish themselves from the crowd.  Somehow Jesus’ death helps them to put everything in perspective.  Whether they act out of guilt, out of a newfound faith, out of a sense of responsibility, they step forward and claim Jesus’ body.  They were not able to publically claim Jesus’ teaching or believe in his divinity during Jesus’ lifetime, but now they are ready.  Now they are able to take a stand.  Now, when the violence has been done, when the threat to them is still very real, they are able to faithfully care for Jesus.

Joseph claims Jesus’ body.  Nicodemus brings myrrh and aloe and together they anoint Christ’s body and prepare him for burial.

These men who would not be publically associated with Jesus, now care for his body in the most physical, personal and tender way.  They have gone from being part of the larger crowd to identifying specifically as followers of Jesus.  They are differentiating themselves.  Aligning themselves with Jesus.  Pouring thousands of their own dollars worth of myrrh and aloe over his body.  Giving him the burial Jesus’ own apostles could not.

They are claiming this crucified Christ as their own.  The apostles all come back, of course, but not until the resurrection.  For them, this crucified Christ was too much to bear.

Where do we stand?  Do we stand with the Pharisees, who cannot tolerate Jesus as he claims his own divinity?  Do we stand with the crowd who mocks and betrays Jesus?  Do we stand with the disciples, who run from Jesus’ death, living into fear instead of into faith?

Or do we stand with the Marys, with Joseph and Nicodemus who are willing to stay with Christ, even through his humiliating death.   Who are willing to stand up after the madness of the crowd and quietly align themselves with this broken Jesus.  Who are willing to be publicly known as followers of this mortal God.

Standing with the resurrected Jesus is easy.  Standing amidst hope and joy and a promise of a new life does not challenge us.  But that resurrection comes at a cost.  The resurrection could not have happened without the senseless, brutal death of Jesus at the hands of a fickle, unruly crowd.  Good Friday invites us to remember.  Good Friday invites us to stand with Joseph and Nicodemus as they reject the crowd and choose Jesus.

Good Friday calls us to account for our choices, whether they are made deliberately and privately or in the heat of a moment as a crowd carries us away. Will be stand up for what is right and true?  Will we stand up for love when everyone around us is calling for death and destruction?  Grace will come, but not yet.  Today we are left with just ourselves.  What do we see within?